MORGAN LE FAY
Morgan le Fay is an ambiguous figure in Arthurian stories. Her presence in the tradition may have origins in Celtic mythology.(1) In twelfth and thirteenth century stories she is introduced as Arthur’s half-sister, the daughter of Arthur’s mother Igraine and her first husband, the Duke of Cornwall. In “The Prose Merlin,” Morgan is sent to school at a convent by her step-father, Uther. She excels in studies of the seven arts, astronomy, nature, and medicine, and is given the name ‘Morgan le Fay’ because of her gifts as a sorceress.(2)
Later on in the legend Morgan uses magic to deceive her half-brother. In Malory's Morte d'Arthur, Morgan steals Arthur’s sword, Excalibur, replacing it with a worthless imitation. She gives the sword to her lover Accolon so that he can use it against the hero; and when this plot fails, Morgan throws Arthur’s scabbard into a lake.(3) The story is retold in Madison J. Cawein's poem "Accolon of Gaul," in which Morgan is a seductive enchantress “with haughty, wicked eyes and lovely face.”(4) She is envisioned as a wild creature, set in a dark and paranormal landscape; however, the poem also reveals a softer, sentimental, stereotypically feminine side of Morgan. Accolon says:
"Still, thou art troubled, Morgane! and the mood,
Deep in thy fathomless eyes, glows.--Canst not keep
Mine eyes from seeing!--Dark thy thought and deep
As that of some wild woman,--found asleep
By some lost knight upon a precipice,--
Whom he hath wakened with a sudden kiss:
As that of some frail elfin lady,--light
As are the foggy moonbeams,--filmy white,
Who waves diaphanous beauty on a cliff,
That, drowsing, purrs with moon-drenched pines; but if
The lone knight follow, foul fiends rise and drag
Him crashing down, while she, tall on the crag,
Triumphant, mocks him with glad sorcery
Till all the wildwood echoes shout with glee." (5)
Accolon’s perception of Morgan as a wild woman, a frail lady, and a powerful sorceress all at once is indicative of her complicated position in Arthurian romance.
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Morgan is not the attractive sorceress of Cawein’s poem; rather, she is short, fat, and old.
“Her body was squat and thick,
Her buttocks bulging and broad….” (6)
She embodies “treachery, hate and deceit, of which Arthur’s court is innocent.”(7) James Wilhelm, however, calls Morgan “the presiding genius of the story.”(8) In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Morgan instigates the Green Knight’s visit to Arthur’s court, hoping to frighten Guinevere. This episode originates from the Vulgate Lancelot, where Guinevere ends an affair between her cousin Guiomar, and Morgan.(9)
Morgan is also presented as a healer in a number of Arthurian stories. In the Vita Merlini (c. 1150) Morgan is said to be the first of nine sisters who rule The Fortunate Isle or the Isle of Apples and is presented as a healer as well as a shape-changer.(10) She is one of the women who take Arthur in a barge to Avalon to be healed.
Morgan rarely appears in post-medieval works, though interest in her character has recently been revived. One of the most interesting modern portrayals of Morgan appears in Thomas Berger's Arthur Rex where, after a life devoted to evil, she decides to become a nun because of her belief that "corruption were sooner brought amongst humankind by the forces of virtue."(11) Her role in modern stories is generally as a defender of good, rather than as the untrustworthy sorceress of earlier accounts. This shift is likely a result of feminist influences and a more relaxed contemporary attitude toward the education of women; or, perhaps authors simply grew bored with the typified fairy-tale character of wicked witch.
1.Camelot Project Bibliography, http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/morgmenu.htm.
Accessed January 25, 2005.
2.“The Prose Merlin” ed. Gaston Paris & Jacob Ulrich, in The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation, ed. James J. Wilhelm (New York: Garland, 1994) 343.
3.Camelot Project Bibliography, http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/morgmenu.htm. January 25, 2005.
4. Madison J. Cawein,“Accolon of Gaul.” http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/cawaccol.htm. January 27, 2005
5.Cawein, "Accolon of Gaul".
6.Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in Wilhelm, The Romance of Arthur.
7.MarionWynne- Davies, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight", in Women and Arthurian Literature: Seizing the Sword, (New York: St. Martin’s, 1996) 50.
8. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in The Romance of Arthur: 399.
9.Camelot Project Bibliography, http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/morgmenu.htm. January 25, 2005.
10.Camelot Project Bibliography, http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/morgmenu.htm. January 25, 2005.
11.Camelot Project Bibliography, http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/morgmenu.htm. January 25, 2005.
Camelot Project Bibliography.< http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/morgmenu.htm> (January 25, 2005.)
Wilhelm, James J., ed. The Romance of Arthur: An Anthology of Medieval Texts in Translation. New York: Garland, 1994.
Wynne- Davies, Marion. Women and Arthurian Literature: Seizing the Sword, New York: St. Martin’s, 1996.
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